Technical Authorship Feedback from Team ObjectSharp

Recently we, ObjectSharpees, had an internal email discussion on the subject of authoring technical books. This blog post provides the feedback from many of the current @TeamObjectSharp book authors.

The questions asked in my starter email were:

  • What is worth authoring a book?
  • How much time did you have to spend on it?
  • Is it hard to get publishers to publish your book?
  • Other feedback on your experience
  • Are you interested in co-authoring books?
  • What is the Booking Authoring Process?

What is worth authoring a book?

@LACanuck: Yes, but only because I get intrinsic enjoyment from writing. If writing is a chore, then I can pretty much guarantee it won’t be worth it.

@VisualDragon: Intrinsically enjoying writing, be it blog or otherwise, isn’t really the same as writing a technical publication that can’t be edited once it “goes to press”.  When you sign off on the galley proofs, that’s pretty much it.  Get it wrong and it’s out there with your name on it forever - or at least until the first revision.

@MichaelSahota: YES! My goal was to help people in my community and improve it. I succeeded.

How much time did you have to spend on it?

@LACanuck: At the pace that I write, it takes about one hour per page, all in. By ‘all in’, I mean the initial planning, research and writing. Along with editing, creating examples, responding to technical and editors comments and reviewing the galley proofs.

 

@MichaelSahota: I had a lot of the book written as blog posts. I thought I would cat it together and be done, but it took a lot more effort than I thought to clean it up to make it coherent.

I RECOMMEND you start publishing your book via blog posts - then you get feedback on your ideas and content. If you want to have a valuable book, I highly recommend it.

Is it hard to get publishers to publish your book?

@LACanuck: I can’t answer this question directly. To be honest, I have publishers asking me to write for them because I stick to the deadlines that I commit to and apparently that is not very common in the industry. But if you do have an idea for a book, I’d be happy to introduce you to my editor, who is actually the Wiley acquisitions editor.

 

@MichaelSahota: My understanding is that most publishers are not that helpful. There is a really cool new approach to consider called "Happy Melly". But you have a lot of content to write before even worrying about publishing.

Other feedback on your experience

@LACanuck: It’s harder and more onerous than you think. I’ll repeat what I said earlier if you don’t *love* to write, you are going to find it hard slogging. If writing comes relatively easily, then it’s a fun process, albeit a grueling one. And the money is not worth it. I get an advance for all of the books that I write (about half make the advance back), but it works out to be around $15-20 an hour for my efforts.

 

@loriblalonde: I think it’s great that you’re interested in writing a book! If you’re passionate about a particular technology, then by all means go for it. I also think it’s a good approach to partner up with others than take on the your first book solo.  I was approached by Apress to write a Windows Phone 8 book, but I do know you can approach publishers to submit your book proposal:

Apress:http://www.apress.com/write-for-us/

O’Reily:http://oreilly.com/oreilly/author/intro.csp

 

@VisualDragon: The research isn’t always as much fun as you might think.  Depending on the technology, there may be very little documentation available to you and some of it is almost certainly going to be wrong.  No surprise there.  You will likely have to piece together information from many sources to get the whole picture.  I used MSDN, blogs, and Stack Overflow. Some things in the Azure portal I pretty much had to document by doing.  I also bought the preview copy of Windows Phone 8 Internals which is being written by members of the actual Windows Phone team and was wrong on several points.  I picked up Bruce’s book on Windows Azure Mobile Services which, at least in all important aspects, was correct, however some of the information in his book was already out of date and it was only published a couple of months before I bought it due to the current state of flux that WAMS is in.

I seemed to draw the short straw with my particular chapters and ended up having to do a lot of experimentation to actually figure out how it worked for real.  Lori had to pick up my slack and wrote 9 chapters of 14 instead of 7.

For example, the new Map control in WP8 says that many of the properties now support data binding.  I wire it up, and nothing happens,  check other sources to confirm that it does,  confirm that those properties are indeed DependencyProperties think maybe it’s a timing issue with data binding due to the different object lifetime management of WP8 etc.. Finally conclude that it’s broken.  My guess is that while the properties are now DependencyProperties, the code to do what it’s supposed to do when those properties change isn’t implemented.

I also managed to uncover a bug in the actual framework that’s likely been there since very early on, probably since WP7.

No.  This is not “fun”.  It sounds like fun As a hobby or for professional growth this might be an interesting exercise but against a deadline, not so much.  And at least for me personally, I feel a deep responsibility to the material and to the reader.  I am not content to just write how it’s supposed to work.  I need to share how it actually works.

I think the best piece of practical advice I could give you is to create the sample application or code first.  Make sure it actually does work the way the documentation says it does.  I had to do a couple of not insignificant rewrites because what I wrote wasn’t how it was in reality.

@danielcrenna: Listen to Bruce. I have written two books and it nearly killed me both times. Stick to small, risk free endeavours like licensed games.

1. Low effort to sustainable value ratio (writing a tech book for the bargain bin vs. a perennial topic)
2. Overwork (might be unique but I had to write 400 pages in two months for one of my books)
3. Personal impedance mismatch (in hindsight I wrote for the wrong reasons and I had low passion for the subject matter, and I mean I didn't have an abiding, irrational love for the subject matter to sustain me through the doldrums).
4. Wrox has ancient tools for writing a book or did at the time. Having good diffs (git) and typesetting (latex and markdown) to keep your writing friction free is a lot more valuable than you might realize.
5. By the time I was asked to write a book I didn't need it for resume padding (which is the only reason you'd write a book if passion is low, it's an ego thing since it's certainly not a money thing in our space).

All that said I have had good responsiveness with publishers. I find just asking is the best strategy. I often review proposals for publishers and many people are first time authors. Best of luck, I feel it's important to be honest about the experience because everyone I talked to was honest with me. And I know if you really want to write a book nobody will be able to stop you. That in a way is the only real prerequisite you need.

 

@MichaelSahota: Follow your dreams. If this is what turns your crank then don't let anyone stop you. On the other hand, I also recommend understanding why you want to do this. Most of us including me are running scripts from parents/society/early-childhood experiences. Following scripts is different from following dreams.

Are you interested in co-authoring books?

@LACanuck: Not now. I have written four books in the last 26 months, so it’s time for me to take a break.

What is the Booking Authoring Process?

@LACanuck:

The process typically goes as follows, at least as far as Microsoft Press and Wiley go.

1. You create a proposal for the book. This includes a description of the contents of the book, who the audience is, what other books on a similar topic might be, a list of the chapters (including a paragraph on what is covered and an estimate of the number of pages), and other details and competitive analysis on the market. Consider this to be a summary of what the publisher is ‘buying’, so it’s goal is to convince them that the book is likely to make them money.

2. If the proposal is accepted, then you will work with your editor to create a schedule for the chapters that you laid out in the proposal. Sometimes the schedule is tight, sometimes it’s not. The one that I’m on the verge of finishing is actually quite tight. The previous couple were much looser. In general, you should expect the schedule to produce a chapter about every 10-14 days. This number is a combination of comfort for you and comfort for the publisher (I have picked up chapters and entire books from authors who went AWOL).

3. As you start to turn in chapters, they will be reviewed by a copy editor and a technical editor. First of all, don’t be shocked by the amount of corrections that are picked up by the copy editor. They know grammar and how to write good English. I don’t claim to J. The purpose of the technical editor is to make sure that the samples you provide actually compile and that the stuff upon which you speak is technically accurate. When this review process is finished, you will get the chapter back with the various edits suggested by these two people. You need to address, correct, disagree with each of the points that are raised. This is typically about an hour per chapter and needs to get turned around normally within about a week of receiving the edit. And this happens while you are continuing to write other chapters.

4. You need to review the galley proofs. This happens late in the process and consists of reviewing the actual PDF files that have been laid out, complete with the figures. Another copy editor has gone through the PDF and made additional notes (amazed me that even after three sets of eyes have seen it, there are still tense and pluralization errors that occur), so you will need to confirm that the changes don’t affect the meaning.

5. Again, towards the end of the schedule, you will be asked to write your bio, the introduction to the, review the cover art and marketing collateral, etc.

So when you figure out your schedule for the book, you need to take all of this into consideration. I can write about 20 pages of new material in my free time for a week. This is why a chapter every 10-14 days works for me. But ultimately you need to make sure that the output required by the schedule fits into the time you have allotted for writing.